Bel Canto Banshee

As you’ll all be very aware, for the last couple of years my life has been pretty much taken over by Florence Foster Jenkins, feted by many (including me) for the horrible quality of her singing.

But opera is full of bad singers. Some, like Anna Russell, sang badly on purpose and earned quite a decent living from it. Others, like Florence, were completely sincere about her shtick... and it is here that we find the Portuguese diva Natalia de Andrade.

Late in her life Madame Natalia recorded two 33rpm albums of her chronic caterwauling, murderous interpretations of works by composers such as Verdi and Puccini. The covers feature a smiling, elderly woman. Neither album is dated, but the story goes that she spent all of her money on her musical career and even borrowed to pay for her own recorded legacy... she once claimed that ‘It is only through my albums that Portugal can hear me.’ After appearing on TV in the 80s she became so famous in her home country that they would refer to Florence Foster Jenkins as ‘America’s Natalia de Andrade’. She even inspired pianist Carlos Pereira to compose a series of solos entitled Four Meditations on Natalia de Andrade, and she became the subject of a documentary Natalia, the Tragicomic Diva.

Her mother, Maria de Andrade, was a singer and gave piano lessons at home; she seems to have cultivated Natalia’s talent, accompanying her daughter in concerts from the age of 10. Later her parents enrolled her at the National Conservatory of Lisbon for voice and piano lessons. Her father worked for the newspaper O Seculo and moved in musical circles, and in 1940 Natalia appeared in the cast of an opera by composer Ruy Coelho in Lisbon Coliseum. After her father died the two women continued to live together: Natalia never married.

She appears to have been a pretty mediocre student, yet somehow it seems that when she was in her mid-50s (around 1964) she was able to record an album (Colecion De Arias De Operas Portuguesas) for Columbia in Madrid (according to her diary these sessions were also self-funded) and she later recorded for Valentim de Carvalho in Lisbon. Her dairy goes in to details of how Natalia would go hungry and would pawn everything she owned (apart from her beloved piano) to pay for these sessions. Her later albums were recorded some time around 1986, when she was 76.

Natalia died on 19 October 1999, in a home for the elderly, aged 89. Right up to the end she played piano almost daily, and would regale the other residents with stories of how she had once been a star. Several years after her passing my friend Gregor Benko included one of her recordings on his compilation The Muse Surmounted a collection which featured a number of deluded divas including, of course, Florence Foster Jenkins.

Have a listen to her massacring a couple of classical standards and make her what you will.


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